A recent Tweet from @ChendersHorror hit me like a bullet made from memories. He posted about the Highgate Vampire, a bunch of old tosh which was pushed into the lower levels of folklore by local people desperate for a new tale to tell after having wrung every last drop of credibility out of stories concerning Dick Turpin and The Spaniards Inn on Hampstead Heath.
To be fair, I know absolutely fuck all about the Highgate Vampire, but the Tweet reminded me about my formative years and time spent at Highgate Cemetery. Built by the Victorians as a cemetery-come-pleasure ground, it’s a wild mix of ornate and elaborate grandiose extravagance for the dead, complete with an Egyptian Avenue, the Lebanon Circle, and a host of outrageous tombs and monuments. Surrounded by crumbling walkways, Victorian families would visit on a weekend and marvel at the cock-measuring contest of rich dead people, judged by who had the grandest mausoleum.
For those who are unaware, Highgate Cemetery is split into two parts. The East Cemetery, which houses Karl Marx and a bunch of his Red cronies, is still in use, and it’s pretty standard aside from a few interesting graves. The West Cemetery is the Victorian part, the extravagant mish-mash of elegance and decay, and the part of the cemetery which this post relates to.
I will stress here I’m no historian, so this briefest explanation of the past might include marginal inaccuracies. The entire cemetery was run by the London Cemetery Company, which was declared bankrupt in 1960. The United Cemetery Company took over, but the cost of running the site was enormous and they needed to pinch the old pennies. Their solution was to struggle on maintaining the East Cemetery, while the West Cemetery was ignored: they closed the gates, locked them and pretty much walked away.
The West Cemetery was ignored and left to decay, despite its grandeur. This was the 1960s and early 1970s in London. No one gave a toss about culture. If someone had offered to bulldoze the lot and build a fucking huge Woolworths, the locals would have taken their hand off for a deal. Okay, they were a few ageing folks with Aran jumpers who wanted to preserve history, but no one took them seriously as they didn’t have a pot to piss in, let alone the funds to buy the site.
As children, we didn’t play in the cemetery. We had better things to do. We had the London Underground, a rattling, dirty, dangerous railway that spread across the city like a bruise. The ticket collectors were all old men. We’d go where we wanted and when we needed to get off, we’d engage an adult in conversation. Approaching the exit we’d skip on ahead and the ticket collectors would assume we were with the adult and they’d have our tickets. By the time they realised we weren’t, we were long gone.
We visited Highgate Cemetery a few times and explored, but as it wasn’t near an Underground Station you had to walk a fair bit, so we didn’t go back. We had bombsites and derelict buildings to mess about in, so an overgrown cemetery didn’t excite us.
Then something changed. We got a bit older and discovered drugs. As we all lived in bedsits, we’d meet up and head somewhere to get high.
On a Friday night, Hampstead Heath was a busy place. It was a notorious pick-up place for the gay community. Teenagers lined the fringes of the Heath, clogging up benches as they swigged cheap cider. After the pubs kicked out, drunk couples would fuck in the bushes. There would also be gaggles of people wandering around, tripping off their nuts. It was busy, too busy some might argue. It was fun struggling around in the dark off your head, but inevitably we’d soon head back to the streets.
One Friday night, as we decided where to go, one of my mates asked about the cemetery. It had been on the News, which reminded us of its existence. The story related to the fact it had been acquired by Friends of Highgate Cemetery. The Aran jumper wearers had collected all their spare change from diown the back of the sofa and found the funds to take over and preserve the site’s heritage. Well, they’d bought it. What they didn’t have was the money to run it, or even to secure it. As I’d been a few times as a kid, I led our merry throng to the site. We were ready to climb over the gates, but we didn’t need to. The chains and locks were long gone and the gates hung open.
We bounced around the cemetery, hiding in broken tombs and jumping out on each other, running through the avenues and generally trying to freak ourselves out. Shouting, screaming, laughing, we made enough noise to raise the dead, but it wasn’t the dead we raised. We soon realised we weren’t alone. However, the other people in the cemetery weren’t drunk or high, they weren’t screwing or wanking each other off. They didn’t want us there, making noise and drawing attention to whatever they were up to. They wanted to kick our heads in.
On that first night, we must have spent an hour running, hiding, keeping out of the way of angry crazy people. I have no doubt they would have beat the shit out of us had they caught us. Afterwards we all agreed one thing: we were going back the next weekend.
We adapted out behaviour. It didn’t mean we weren’t prone to the odd freak out, and we certainly didn’t live in harmony with the other visitors, but we got by. There were numerous types of visitors. Some broke open tombs to see if there was anything of value inside. If there was no jewellery, they’d take the skulls and sell them on to freaks! Then there were the Satanists. To be fair to real Satanists, these were largely home-grown Satanists who just liked getting naked, doing blood rituals and killing animals. They weren’t the kind of people you wanted to confront, just in case. Then there were the occult enthusiasts, whispering to each other of legends and doing tarot readings while sitting on graves. And there was us, stumbling around, off our heads, drinking it all in.
It was fine, until Halloween happened.
It was the pure definition of a clusterfuck. I’d never seen so many freaks in one place, and it all kicked off. The real Satanists arrived to teach the home-grown Satanists a lesson, and the home-grown Satanists decided it was time to see off the occult enthusiasts. The grave robbers needed to exert their authority, so went up against every one else. Fist fights were breaking out all over the place. The numbers swelled when a bunch of students arrived; they thought it might be funny to walk around a cemetery on Halloween, and after the pubs closed a few dozen football hooligans turned up to kick the daylights out of anyone they found. Then the police arrived.
After Halloween, the gates were fitted with new padlocks and chains, and the security guards arrived. We were never sure who’d paid them. We didn’t know if it was the Aran jumper club or the GLC, but the guards were certain of one thing: they didn’t fancy spending the night in a derelict graveyard. It was business as usual, with the added fun of avoiding occasional security dog patrols.
Eventually my friends and I moved from bedsits to flats and houses, and the need to go out and wander around all night ended. A few years passed and we never visited the cemetery. One day, I was with a girlfriend and the cemetery came up in conversation. She wanted to see it. It had been four or five years since the Aran jumper club had taken over, so we expected visiting to be a no-no. However, while the gates were locked and festooned with ‘No Trespassing ‘signs, getting in was easy. We went during the day and spent a few hours wandering around before a gardener spotted us. He was pleasant enough and told us to avoid the lower part of the site because the people in the office would call the police if they saw us.
That was that; a good few years passed and I forgot all about the place, until my wife (she wasn’t my wife at the time) visited me in London. I mentioned Highgate Cemetery, and she wanted to go.
How it had changed. You could only visit the West Cemetery as part of a tour. They had security staff, cameras, high gates (in Highgate; odd, eh?) and chirpy tour guides. We did the tour and when we reached the Lebanon Circle, I used my knowledge of the layout to get ourselves separated.
The place has been tidied up, and whilst it was still pretty glorious, it lacked the edge it had as an overgrown lawless freak-show. Avoiding uniformed staff was less exciting than hiding from crazy fucked-up people in the dark, and when we were discovered two hours later, the staff even apologised to us as we expaliend we’d been separated from the tour.
So, there you go; a trip down memory lane for me, and a load of waffle for you. If you’re wondering why you’ve sat and read this nonsense, don’t blame me. Blame @ChendersHorror for dredging it all up!